Interview: How is the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport operating during coronavirus?

We’ve spent the last few months talking to our users, understanding what their travel experiences are like. As a follow-up we wanted to understand what leaders in the travel industry are doing to bring back confidence to travel. I had a chance to chat with Perry Cooper, Sr. Manager of Media Relations at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, to understand how they’re adapting to and dealing with the pandemic.

Can you tell us a little bit about how the coronavirus has impacted SEA?
Like airports throughout the country, we’ve been hit hard with the COVID-19 situation. At our lowest point we were down 95% in passenger traffic compared to 2019. SEA has been one of the fastest growing airports in the U.S. the last five years, moving up to the 8th largest. The summer is our busiest time of the year and normally we see 60,000 to 70,000 departing passengers going through security checkpoints per day. The pandemic saw that drop to as low at 2,500 per day. We have been gaining more travelers in the last couple of months to the point where we were expecting over 20,000 per day for the Labor Day holiday. That’s still 70–75% below what we normally average, but that is the start of a rebound.

We have over 5,000 new signs throughout the airport

What changes has SEA made to bring back confidence to travel?
Our focus from the very beginning of this situation has been the health and safety of our staff, tenants and the public. Those who haven’t returned to flying will need to get used to some new processes that are setup for healthy travel and we are updating those efforts and procedures as we learn and discover more during these unique times. We’ve put into place physical distancing signage and stickers, over 250 hand sanitizers throughout the terminal, protective plexiglass separators between customers and employees, stepped up cleaning efforts with frequent disinfection and medical-grade cleaning products, continued innovative cleaning processes, and early adoption of a face covering requirement.

You might spot our Mask Up crew around SEA!

What social distancing measures have you put into place in regards to check-in, security, and boarding/waiting areas?
We have over 5,000 new signs throughout the terminal noting the CDC recommendation of six feet of separation. We have put together some fun graphics used in various locations, including the security checkpoints, that reference Pacific Northwest animals to help people relate to six foot distancing. This includes two salmon, the wingspan of an eagle and the width of a moose rack.

We’ve created fun physical distancing signs throughout the terminal

We have these placed at ticket counter and checkpoint queues, plus other locations where lines can occur. Our tenants are also helping with their own branded separation markers from airlines to food and retail tenants. We are encouraging touchless processes throughout the traveler experience, getting boarding passes online, using common use kiosks for check-in, signage on seating in the gate areas, announcements on overhead speakers, and reminders on social media and signage throughout the terminal. Here’s a link to our FlyHealthy@SEA program page that continues to be updated with new numbers and details.

Our retail tenants are also helping with their own branded separation markers

What new cleaning procedures have you implemented?
We have increased our frequencies of cleaning and stepped up disinfectant use with hospital-grade cleaning products. We have worked with our cleaning contractors for additional efforts from electrostatic sprayers to escalator handrail cleaners, and continue to look for additional products and touchless technologies that can be used. In August, we also began enhanced security checkpoint cleaning that encompasses hourly, continuous disinfection of the bins, bowls, conveyors, railings, benches, tables and other surfaces.

Later this month, SEA is piloting a mobile system that removes pathogens from the air. Our existing HVAC system already captures 90% of COVID-19 sized particles and ensures the continuous of fresh, clean air into the terminal, but we’re adding CASPR to Concourse D in response to the current climate. More is better right now. How does it work? The device filters the air and disperses negatively charged ions. These ions are attracted to positively charged particles, such as viruses, bacteria and mold, to neutralize and kill them at the molecular level.

We’ve installed plastic protective barriers all across the airport, including TSA checkpoints

Are you looking into any new types of touchless tech?
Yes, we continue to look into any new technology that we can find and are sharing with other airports throughout the country what’s working and what isn’t as this is all new to everyone. Besides what’s mentioned previously, our maintenance division continues to reach out to companies with new ideas to find if they are efficient and cost-effective for use at an airport.

Travelers may now spot our fleet of six self-driving machines that autonomously clean the floor. Artificial intelligence software manages and deploys the fleet with digital terminal maps, freeing up airport cleaning staff to complete other work that requires a human touch.

Our newest fleet of six self-driving machines that autonomously clean the floor

Have you seen any unexpected trends since the pandemic started?
We have seen that our peak periods have shifted with traffic. Our peak is now in the 8–9am area where it used to be in the 6–8am period. The airlines may know more specifically, but it appears to be the reduction in business travel, which typically started very early. Now those leisure travelers are not as interested in getting up as early. I don’t blame them!

The lower traffic is hurting other businesses throughout the terminal that depend on passengers, such as dining and retail, taxis/ground transportation, parking, hotels locally. Those kinds of things. We have seen the numbers go up recently, however, this is the end of the summer now with the Labor Day holiday so we would not project those numbers to stay where they are at for the fall, unless things change. Things are changing weekly, so it’s not always easy to project. At this point, 88% of our dining and retail tenants re-opened. That is more than many airports right now and is a benefit for our retail tenants as people with connections may not have as many choices open to them where they are coming from so they can take advantage of the options here. Many are still open only limited hours as traffic throughout the day has not fully returned.

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